Posts for December, 2009

Men of Passmore’s

Growing boys need good male role models. The models I had, in my teenage years at least, were the blokes I worked with at Passmore’s liquor store. My teachers were too remote to serve the purpose and the only other man around was Ernest Hadath, the husband of my mother’s best friend. I didn’t see Ernest very often whereas I was at Passmore’s every Saturday.

There were half a dozen permanent storemen, with a whole slew of casuals who came and went as the seasons turned. Some of them I barely remember now but others made enough impression to be with me still, fifty years later.

Bill was the oldest, pushing sixty when I first started. I remember him mostly for his bad jokes, delivered with a liquid splutter, and for the raw onion sandwiches he made himself for lunch.

Mac was married and kept tropical fish. He was a sturdy, extravert with wavy dark hair and a pommie cockiness that led to certain retaliation. We teased him constantly and he gave as good as he got, which wasn’t hard given the banality of our witticisms. I can recall, for example, all the schoolboy packers singing in chorus:

The McCartneys are coming. Hurrah! Hurrah!
The McCartneys are coming. Hurrah! Hurrah!
The McCartneys are coming. Hurrah! Hurrah!
They’re pissing all over the bathroom floor.

 Mac took this stuff in good part, dismissing it with a grin and a toss of his head.

George was blond and balding. He spent a good chunk of his time outside the store doing deliveries and fancied himself as a ladies’ man. He had a touch of vanity that made him seem a bit stand-offish or maybe it was just that he lacked the self-irony that the other blokes had and took himself far too seriously. It seemed like he couldn’t be bothered with the likes of us.

It was John, the head storeman, who made the biggest impression – on me, at any rate. He shared the name with my father, who had died seven years before, and he looked like my father, too – tallish, with very straight blond-brown hair and a lightly freckled complexion. His job gave him an authority that I could easily interpret as paternal so it was natural for me to feel a special bond with him. There were disjoints to the picture, though.

My father was a teetotaller and had spent World War II working in a classified occupation. John was an alcoholic who had seen some brutal service with the New Zealand Army at Cassino. He was a damaged man. In that, he reminded me of my maternal grandfather who had served on the Somme in World War I and suffered shell-shock. Both men gave the sense of something suppressed. In John’s case, whatever it was never actually got to the surface, at least not in my presence.

He spent a fair bit of his time in an office tucked away in the back of a store, doing paperwork, I suppose, although he also had the company of a bottle of something a lot stronger than beer. As the day wore on, his face got a sweaty look and his eyes began to glitter. Three or four strands of hair would gradually work loose and slip down over his forehead. If something annoyed him, he’d just smile – a tight little smile – and the more annoyed he got the wider and tighter the smile became. I am not sure what would have happened if he had ever lost his temper. I doubt I would have wanted to be there, though.

WWII is part of the psychic landscape of my generation. Many of us have fathers or uncles who were involved in it. I’ve written about it directly in a story called The Sphinx and it lurks in the background of several of my novels, such as Black Earth/White Bones, in which the main protagonist’s father is an alcoholic veteran, living in the psychic aftermath of the Italian Campaign. When I write such passages, I think of John.

He had left Passmore’s when I went back there for a brief stint at the end of 1972. The last time I saw him was in 1965, when I was working as a postie. He was making a delivery in the same plush Parnell street where I was delivering mail. We chatted for a little while. He seemed more relaxed than he had been as my boss. I was glad he remembered me.

Awaiting the tomatoes. And the beans

At the Shrine

Laughing Buddha


Master Tze and his companions were at the shrine.

‘How can he laugh when the world is so full of pain and woe?’ asked Bardumon.

‘It depends what’s in the teapot,’ said Master Tze.

Bardumon went away with an angry look.

‘So, what is in the teapot?’ Skyfoot asked.

‘Nothing!’ Master Tze told him.

‘What do we do, then?’

‘We sing,’ the Master said.

‘And what do we sing?’

‘Anything at all.’

So they sang Goodbye from White Horse Inn.

Santa gets the message


The Meaning of I

One of the characters in my novel Black Earth/White Bones is Jurgen Wolff, the neurotic son of an almost-famous Austrian philosopher. In the course of the book Jurgen becomes deeply troubled by the thought that he might not exist. The argument that leads him to this disturbing conclusion goes something like this.

Words obtain their meaning through a process of reference. The term ‘Eiffel Tower’ or ‘Ohakune Carrot’ refer to particular objects in particular places. We might say such names are labels that pick out things. In a similar way, the term ‘dog’ picks out a member of a particular class of animals.

In English, and in many other languages, there is a group of words, which philosophers call ‘indexicals’, that work a little differently.  This group includes words like ‘now’, ‘here’, ‘today’, ‘you’ and ‘I’. Indexicals obtain their reference from the particular circumstances in which they are used. ‘Now’ refers to the time that it is spoken, ‘here’ to the place. ‘Today’ picks out 20/12/09 on 20/12/09 but not on 1/6/10. ‘You’ picks out the person who is addressed, ‘I’ the person speaking. We might say that the meaning of an indexical is determined by a particular point of view.

Jurgen’s problem in Black Earth/White Bones comes from the use of the word ‘I’ and its objective variant ‘me’.

Generally speaking, we think of a person as consisting of a body and a mind or a mind incorporated in a body or a physical part and a mental or conscious part. Some of us might want to call the mental part ‘a soul’. What, precisely, do the words ‘I’ and ‘me’ pick out in this context?   

I can say ‘I am 1.85m tall’, which implies that the object that ‘I’ refers to is physical. I can also say ‘I am not my body’ without talking obvious nonsense or ‘I like my body’. Such sentences suggest a reference that is non-physical. What about ‘I do not like the way I look?’ This seems to imply two referents for the word ‘I’ one of which is purely physical and one of which isn’t. How about this one?

‘When I die I don’t want to be buried I want you to cremate me and scatter me in the Rose Garden and, don’t forget, I’ll be watching to make sure you do.’

It seems here that the referent for ‘I’ and ‘me’ shifts around from the physical to the mental, from the live person to the dead body to the ashes to the immortal soul.

This slipperiness leads Jurgen to wonder whether the word ‘I’ refers to anything at all and, if it doesn’t, then his only conclusion is that he does not exist.

The idea that a person consists of a mind and a body is deeply rooted in human culture. It is implicit in the notion of ghosts and ancestor spirits and traceable through early thought into philosophy and the traditional doctrines of religions such as Christianity and Islam. When we die our souls go somewhere: to Hell or Heaven or Valhalla or Paradise or maybe just to wander the world among the living.

I think there are two impulses behind these beliefs. First, if you hold to your own perspective and refrain from adopting an ‘outside’ view of yourself, your own death is inconceivable. It seems impossible that you could cease to exist. What is it like to be dead? Well, nothing. The belief in an afterlife is not just a comfort and an antidote to fear. From a certain perspective, the immortality of one’s soul is an entirely rational conclusion. This does not, of course, mean that it is a correct one.

The second reason for belief in the separate existence of a mind or soul is that, on occasion, we experience ourselves that way. I can adopt a point of view in which my foot or my waistline or the shape of my ears or, conceivably, my whole body becomes an object of my attention. Anything that can be an object considered in a point of view is logically distinct from whatever it is that does the considering. It is tempting to call the considerer, which is intimately bound up with one’s sense of self, a soul or a mind or a consciousness and then begin to analyse it as we would any other object. Such projects are fraught with difficulty, as Jurgen’s conundrum shows. The problem is not that we are our bodies, as reductionist science or philosophy wants to claim, but that we cannot be the objects of our own analysis. Like the speck in the field of vision that moves as soon as I try to focus on it, the subject of my point of view can never become its object.

Happy Hollyhocks and Great Seasonings!


Charlie Passmore was a war hero and an Auckland city councillor who had begun his business career in the early fifties with a coffee bar in Victoria Street called Coffee Time or so I heard. He moved from there to the liquor business, setting up a wholesale liquor store towards the lower end of Newton Road. Somewhere along the way he married a woman with the family name of Dewar, who just happened to be heiress to a whisky empire. I guess that helped.

In those days there were three main ways you could buy alcohol in New Zealand – over the bar in a pub, in a bottle store or through a wholesaler. Wholesale meant a minimum of two gallons or a dozen 750ml bottles. The drink of choice was beer. My guess is that beer made up more than 90% of Passmore’s sales and that up to two thirds of that 90% would have been one particular brand – Draft Dominion Bitter or DDB, made by Dominion Breweries. In summer, between four and six on a Friday evening, Passmore’s could sell a 1,000 cartons of DDB, something over 8,000 litres. This wasn’t a measure of how drunk people got in the old days but a reflection of the fact that there weren’t many wholesale liquor outlets. Charlie was onto a good thing.

The system at Passmore’s was primitive but efficient. The customer first took his empties, in cartons or crates, to the empty bottle dock. The storeman there counted them up and gave him a credit docket, which he took round to the office. Here he gave his order to one of the salesmen, paid the difference between his order and his credit and headed back to the store. Meanwhile, the salesman had shoved the order – hand-written in a duplicate book of perforated, yellow paper and then torn out – through a slide in the door between office and the store. By the time the customer got round to the store, the storeman had picked up the order and had the carton of DDB, or whatever it was, on the counter waiting.

I worked at Passmore’s, part-time, for four years through high school and early university and then for another brief period towards the end of 1972 before Anne and I went overseas. At first I was a packer, then storeman and, finally, I did a stint in the office. In the early days I worked Saturdays and school holidays, with a break after New Year, when things went quiet. I earned time and a half for eight hours on a Saturday at around 7/6 an hour, which, after tax, gave me something over £4 for the day. This was a huge sum. In my previous job, working for the local greengrocer, I had got 5/- or so for pedalling a push-bike with a big basket full of deliveries round the streets of Mt Wellington for a couple of hours on Friday night and more on Saturday morning.

The packing now seems like an oddly trivial job. It was based on the fact that a carton of beer, which held a dozen bottles, could be sold for more than half the price of a crate, which held two dozen. Packing exploited this gap in value. At the empty bottle dock, cartons were emptied and their contents put into crates. The good quality cartons were then reused – filled with full bottles taken out of crates, which then went to be filled with empties. And so on.

It was boring work. Hardly surprising that fourteen-year-old boys spent a lot of time fooling around. We talked and we joshed each of other and we sang the hits of the day: Hang Down Your Head Tom Dooley, Wake Up Little Suzie, Purple People Eater. From time to time one of the storemen, John or Mac, maybe, would come along and remind us we were supposed to be doing a job and we would get serious and pack beer for an hour or so. Now and again, a couple of us would get into a competition to see how much we could really pack in a day if we tried. I think we got up to 300 or 350 cartons apiece. Days like that were rare, though, and I am sure that a lot of the time we didn’t do enough to earn our pay. It is only now, looking back, that I understand why we got away with it. Before the company began hiring the likes of us, the storemen had to do all the packing. This was not an arrangement they wanted to go back to, so no doubt everyone told everyone else what a good job we were doing.    

One of the odd things about Passmore’s was that Charlie allowed his staff to drink on the job. This practice seemed to have arisen in the days when he worked there himself, which he no longer did by the time I arrived. His attitude seems to have been that if he didn’t give the blokes a few beers during work hours, they’d steal it from him anyway and he’d have no control over it. In consequence, during slack periods, the storemen would spend a lot of time standing round, smoking and yarning and drinking beer. In busy times they worked their butts off.

In addition to serving the customers, making up orders and dealing with the empties, the storeman’s job consisted mostly of moving beer around inside the store. It got delivered on trucks which backed into the loading dock on Newton Road. A ramp allowed you to wheel your handcart right onto the tray of the truck, pick up the cartons or crates four at a time and wheel them back down. At Christmas time, when space was short, the beer got stacked six high, if it were in crates, and eight or even twelve for cartons.

Getting the little tray of the handcart under four crates of beer wasn’t easy. You had to tip the handles forward and twist the cart so it was at a slight angle to the crates. Then you drove the corner of the tray under the bottom crate by pressing on the back of the handcart axle with your foot. Another twist and more foot pressure straightened the cart and got the tray right in. Lastly, you had to brace the cart with your foot against the axle while you simultaneously hauled the handles of the cart back with one hand and the crates, with your grip on the top one, with the other. If you were good, you could do the whole manouvre in one smooth movement lasting no more than three or four seconds. If weren’t, things could go drastically wrong. The pile of crates might fold, with the bottom three going forward and the top one back. Or all four might topple to the side. It wasn’t easy to right them if they started moving the wrong way. There is something impressive about 96 bottles of beer and their attendant crates falling off the side of a flat bed truck into a concrete loading dock.  

In the end, I took a lot of pride in my ability with the handcart and in the precision with which I could toss a carton of beer two metres or more into the air and land it on top of a stack in a gap barely wider than the carton itself. These skills were useless in my later life but there was something about doing a physical job and doing it well that mattered at the time and still matters now, looking back. Perhaps the biggest thing that Passmore’s taught me was respect: for myself and, more importantly, for other people, ordinary working people.

As for Charlie, some time around 1960 somebody died over in Scotland and his wife came into her inheritance. Charlie went off to become Laird of the Manor, or whatever it was, and was never seen again.

Foxgloves are almost done but the lilies are in full flight.